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Friday, June 5, 2009

24 hours that changed Singapore

24 hours that changed Singapore

Fifty years ago, on June 3, 1959, a new Singapore came into being, with a new government of Singaporeans, for Singaporeans. Some who were there recall those 'Merdeka' moments

By Li Xueying, Political Correspondent and Jeremy Au Yong, Political Correspondent

AT MIDNIGHT, the music stopped.
Over the airways of Singapore's only two radio stations - one English, one Mandarin - Elvis Presley fell silent, as did the Chinese orchestra.

What came on instead, at 12.01am on June 3, 1959, were the crisp, solemn tones of the British Governor, Sir William Goode.

He delivered a short, terse message. At the Chinese-language radio station, an interpreter simultaneously translated it into Mandarin.

Sir William intoned: 'Whereas by Section 2 of the Singapore (Constitution) Order in Council, 1958, (in this proclamation referred to as 'the order'), it is provided that the order shall come into operation on such day as the Governor may appoint by proclamation in the Gazette.

'Now, therefore, in exercise of the powers conferred upon me by Section 2 of the Singapore (Constitution) Order in Council, 1958, I, William Allmond Codrington Goode, Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Colony of Singapore, do hereby appoint the third day of June, 1959, as the day on which the aforesaid Singapore (Constitution) Order in Council 1958, shall come into operation.'

With these words, a new State of Singapore came into being and a new government of Singaporeans was in charge.

It was led by Mr Lee Kuan Yew whose People's Action Party (PAP) had won 43 out of 51 seats during the General Election a few days earlier on May 30.

That poll saw twelve political parties taking part, and a voter turnout of 600,000. Reflecting the largely migrant population then, less than half - 270,000 - had been born in Singapore.

Self-government meant that apart from defence and foreign affairs matters which remained under British control, the PAP government would have to take care of everything else about the state - from housing and health to education and transport.

In a small attap house in Jurong, Mr Chor Yeok Eng listened to Sir William's message, his heart full.

The 29-year-old, just elected legislative assemblyman for Jurong, had specially stayed up with his wife to listen to the announcement.

And even though it was long past their bedtime, their three young children were also wide awake, infected by the adults' excitement without quite knowing what it was about.

Mr Chor explained to them the significance of the proclamation: Exactly 140 years after Sir Stamford Raffles set foot on the island, Singapore was henceforth a self-governing state.

'I told them, after so many years of struggle, Singaporeans finally saw some fruits,' Mr Chor, now 79, recalls in Mandarin. 'It was the first step of our journey towards independence.'

He later became Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Environment.

IN A house in Oxley Road, a seven-year-old boy was more occupied with the commemorative stamps issued to mark the occasion.

Too young to stay up for Sir William's announcement, he had nevertheless pored over the set of six stamps - valued at 4, 10, 20, 25, 30 and 50 cents - which his grandfather had bought him.

Recalls Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong: 'Commemorative stamps were issued, with a picture of a Singapore lion and the Padang, but still showing a portrait of the Queen.

'I collected stamps, so my grandfather bought me a set, on a first-day cover.'

A Primary 2 student then at Nanyang Primary, he was 'too young to appreciate fully what self-government meant', Mr Lee tells Insight.

But 'I did understand that with self-government, Singapore would now have a Prime Minister instead of a Chief Minister, and more authority over our own affairs', he says.

He also knew that 'the PAP had fought a tough General Election, and won a famous victory'.

'There had been much hubbub at our home in Oxley Road in the preparations for the election,' he says.

The house was stacked with posters, polling cards, and electoral registers. Party workers were coming and going.

Outside, there was a similar buzz in the air, recalls retired permanent secretary Ngiam Tong Dow, then a 22-year-old cub reporter with The Straits Times. 'It was a big step forward: we were going to be responsible for our own economy, our education system.'

At 4pm that fateful day, people started making their way to the Padang. Some walked. Others took the bus.

The idea was to position themselves for a victory mass rally by the PAP that was to start at 6.45pm.

Many were blue-collar workers, like factory operators, who were strong supporters of the party.

Others were simply curious Singaporeans who wanted to see at first-hand history in the making.

In the crowd was Tan Kok Kiong, 18, who had come from school with a few friends from Chung Cheng High School.

'We were excited because we were going to rule our own country, and we can have our voice,' says Mr Tan, now 68 and a lawyer. 'Although we didn't know what was going to happen - Will there really be a change from the British rule? - the fact was that we were going to be the boss of our country.'

They jostled their way past sweaty human bodies and got themselves a vantage position in the middle section. Still, they were not able to see the speakers on the steps of City Hall, they only heard their voices thundering through the giant speakers.

Also making his way through the crowd, while protecting his camera, was Mr Mak Kian Seng. The 20-year-old had joined The Straits Times five years earlier as an apprentice photographer and was determined to prove his mettle.

He manoeuvred to the front of the crowd, and waited.

Hundreds of metres away, in a room inside the building, another photographer was doing his work too.

'Closer, closer.' He hustled together the 51 PAP candidates - including the seven who lost - who had stood for election on May 30.

The nine men who were to be the ministers in Singapore's first self-government Cabinet sat down in chairs in the front row. The rest lined up behind.

The flash went off, and a photo of the group, dressed in blinding white on white - 'to denote purity', a PAP spokesman told The Straits Times then - was taken for posterity.

THE sunlight was waning when at 6.45pm, the band of men and women stepped out into the public glare of scrutiny.

Behind them, more than 600 multi-coloured banners fluttered from the columns of the City Hall.

Before them, a crowd of an estimated 50,000 to 80,000, roared 'Merdeka!', and surged forward to where police officers and trusted PAP members linked arms, forming a line separating the masses from the platform.

Standing there, Mr Chan Chee Seng felt overwhelmed with 'happiness and confidence'.

Elected in Jalan Besar, the Mandarin-speaking 27-year-old who later became the PAP's party whip from 1963 to 1984, recalls the inequality that existed under the British colonialists.

The son of Mr Chan Kok Chee, a founding member of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, he bristles at the memory of how he and his mother were once shoo-ed off a public bus for having the temerity to want to sit at its front half - reserved for the British.

He thought to himself: 'Previously, it was the British running the show. We Singaporeans were second class. Now, we hold our destiny in our own hands.'

It was this sense of empowerment that perhaps drove the crowd to shout 'Merdeka' and to wave banners as Mr Lee introduced each of the 43 successful candidates that Singaporeans had elected.

Seven speakers, including the party's chairman Toh Chin Chye and its economic expert Dr Goh Keng Swee, received 'a tremendous ovation', reported The Straits Times then.

But the climax came when Mr Lee took to the stage as the last speaker.

He spoke. The crowd quietened down.

'Once, in a long while in the history of a people, there comes a moment of great change. Tonight is such a moment in our lives.'

He reminded his listeners of the poignant significance of where they were standing.

'Do you know, we wanted to use this Padang for our election rallies at night, but a small group of Europeans who were given this field by the former colonial government refused it, although they only use it in the day for a few people to play games.'

He vowed: 'Well, times have changed and will stay changed.'

Mr Lee raised his arm, clenching his fist, as he roared: 'Merdeka!' The crowd roared an enthusiastic response.

Photographer Mak scrambled to get photos of the emotions etched on the faces. 'It was all very exciting,' he says. 'I was taking photos, so I couldn't shout Merdeka. But in our hearts we were doing the same thing.'

Just an hour later, the rally ended, with the PAP marching from City Hall to Parliament House.

But not the celebrations.

Some started setting off firecrackers, recalls Mr Chor. 'They weren't banned then,' he remarks with a chuckle.

He met his supporters, and they headed back to his branch in Jurong by bus.

'There, we had a simple discussion, no big celebration. We didn't have a lot of money then.'

By midnight - a full 24 hours after Singapore became self-governing - all were home, asleep.

THE photos came out well, but it was not a picture-perfect day .

It was a time fraught with uncertainties.

Emotions went both ways.

Mixed in with the celebrations was the very real fear of the growing communist influence. Suspicions swirled that even the PAP had been infiltrated by the communists.

Mr Douglas Miller, 87, was then working in the British Special Branch. He was in charge of processing the information that was obtained through sources like the field agents. (Note: Mr Miller died on May 4, a week after this interview.)

He clearly recalled the tension surrounding that day and even joked that 'self-governance meant more work'.

He says: 'A lot of work had to be done behind the scenes to make sure the security was intact. The department's concern was to ensure that things went off peacefully and were not disrupted by the communists. At that time, even after that time, the communist threat was so great.'

The various groups also felt differently about the occasion. With speculation rife about PAP's communist connections, the English-educated were especially uneasy.

It did not help when Dr Goh made it plain during the rally that the English-educated would lose the privileges they had enjoyed under the British, and would have to compete on equal terms with everyone else.

The changes were foreboding and even frightening for the older generation in the group, recalls Mr David Naidu, then a 19-year-old journalist and now 69.

'They knew no rule other than British rule. When they sang 'God Save The Queen', they meant it.

'I remember my mother trying to understand - leave alone accept - the political winds of change swirling at her doorstep.'

Her memory, he says, was already 'scarred' by the short-lived political career of Singapore's first chief minister David Marshall and the death of four people in the Hock Lee bus riots in 1955.

'And now, with the granting of self-government, she felt the British were abandoning the very people who had served them well. She spoke for many in her age group. On that fateful June morning, I could detect dejection in her voice.'

Many Eurasian families simply upped and left Singapore.

Mr John Oehlers, 60, whose father was Sir George Edward Noel Oehlers, the first Speaker of the Singapore Legislative Assembly, recalls that 'fear of communism was around at that time'.

'There were two distinct possibilities: mass migrate, or say, hey we're Singaporeans, we're Asians, we stay.'

Many in the Eurasian and Peranakan communities were upset by Dr Goh's speech, he says.

'Well, this was what we thought Singapore should be in the first place. And they were just a bit upset that he made that statement - we thought, hey we're with you, so stop it!'

At the same time, internally within the PAP, there were already schisms between the leaders and leftists like Mr Lim Chin Siong, who had the strong support of many Chinese-educated Singaporeans. These schisms were later to lead to a split of the party and the formation of the Barisan Sosialis.

Meanwhile for others, June 3 was a prelude to what would be an even more special day.

As the lawyer, Mr Tan puts it, it was 'just a warm-up exercise' for August 9, 1965 - the day Singapore achieved total independence as a nation.

xueying@sph.com.sg

May 30 2009

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